Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's Not Guilt

My three month old has been a bit fussy the last few days. He's adjusting to a new sleep pattern, and, given the slime-trails of drool that coat nearly ever shirt I own, he very well may be starting to teethe. So this afternoon I found myself standing in the middle of my living room swaying and shushing my swaddled infant in a desperate attempt to get my little one down for his afternoon nap. Usually, I can lay him down, awake but just barely in his bassinet without so much as a squeak, but this afternoon he wouldn't even let me sit down to rock him to sleep. He wanted to be held close while I stood to bounce him off to dreamland. All this to say, I don't normally watch afternoon television, but since it was taking my little man a bit of work to drift off, I popped on "The Talk."

I had never watched the program before, but who could miss all the television ads in prime time touting it as the modern mom talk show to watch. My reaction - really? REALLY?!

The opening talk of today's program was inspired by Julianna Margulies' interview in Harper's Bazaar. The hosts mention Margulies' role on "The Good Wife" and begin to discuss their moments of being the good wife versus the bad wife. What evolves is an conversation where Leah Remini declares that she is a good wife when she gives "it" up for her husband, which according to her is the only thing all men want any way, versus Holly Robinson Peete saying that she is a good wife when she brings her husband his slippers and pipe. My initial reaction is to stop bouncing my little one (to his dismay) and stand dumbfounded. Really? You're going to argue over which superficial gender role is more accurate? And this on a show that touts itself as the program that "gets" modern mothers. I highly doubt a majority of their viewers would agree that what makes a woman a "good wife" is the level to which she submits to her husband's desires, whether they be for sex or slippers.

Ironically, when Julianna Margulies was asked about how she was able to be a good wife and mother, she responded in her interview that she feels
"...guilt all the way around. You want to be there for your husband, be there for your kids, be great at your job, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, if you put everyone in front of you, what happens to you? I think all these 1950s Leave It to Beaver housewives suddenly woke up and went, 'What about me? F--k you all. You know how hard this is? I've had dinner on the table, I've figured this out, and now you're sleeping with your secretary?' I do believe the balance lies in yourself. I can't say I can do it all, because I can't."
One of the hosts mentions this quote from the magazine. From here the conversation slips into talk of our role as mothers and our place within the family. Holly makes a comment about how she takes care of her husband, her kids, even her dogs before she takes care of herself. The camera pans wide, the women in the audience can all be seen nodding their heads. The women around the table lean in closer as the camera zooms in for a close-up on their pensive faces. They begin to discuss how mothers are motivated by guilt. I am no longer dumbfounded. I'm irritated. I am actually a bit surprised by how strong my reaction is at the mention of mothers' guilt, and I find myself wondering, "Why does this bother me so much?"

In frightful earnestness the women discuss how guilt haunts every choice they have made since becoming a mother. They feel guilty for having a career, for not spending more personal time with their husbands, for putting the children above their own needs, for putting their own needs above their children - their guilts start to contradict each other.

I hate the word guilt. It's cheap. It's easy. It's superficial. It is word too easily attached to the role of motherhood. It is not guilt these successful television hosts feel. It is ambivalence. They feel ambivalent about wanting a career, or alone time, or a role in addition to that of mother. They feel ambivalence for wanting to be successful outside the home as well as inside. But it is certainly not guilt. If it were guilt, they could repent for the offending behavior, never to be "guilty" of it again. This, however, is not what they mean when they declare their feelings of guilt.

Our culture almost seems to demand that these successful mothers publicly declare their "guilt." We are supposed to feel guilty for wanting more, for not being able to balance it all. But "guilt" is a disguise for a choice that we've already made, whether that choice be to achieve professionally or to stay at home to raise happy, healthy children. By falling prey to the pressure of "working mother's guilt," we cheapen both our roles as mothers and as professionals. Such proclamations of guilt take away from the difficult choices we've had to make along the way. Proclaiming feelings of guilt is a disavowal of those choices. Guilt oversimplifies what it means to be a modern mother.

I wished the television hosts would own their ambivalence and not some false sense of guilt. Clearly they would not be on television and as successful professionally as they are today if they were truly motivated by some sense of guilt. Instead, I wish these public women would spend time talking about the pull they feel for wanting something for themselves versus the pressure they feel to also be the attentive housewife and mother. It is these polarized images of the modern woman - career-driven versus crafting mom - that have us embracing notions of guilt. The modern mother is more complicated. We need to own our ambivalence, not the guilt.

Only one voice on the panel, that of the youngest of the mothers, Sarah Gilbert, prevailed as the voice of balance, observing that we all want what we don't have, and that at some point "we need to come to terms with our choices in order to find balance." It was with that sound declaration that I was able to lay my infant son down for his nap and pick up my laptop to blog.

1 comment:

  1. I could NOT agree with you more. I'm so sick of this popular Mom Guilt that we are all supposed to have. I love what I do, and I don't feel guilty. I it's my choice. Thank you!


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